A dot on a graph with no context is often fairly useless unless you have already established a sense of context. A good example from my last job: if I tell someone that they used 200 kWhs last month, for the large percentage of the population, that doesn’t mean anything unless they also know how much others are using, or how much they used in the past. Another situation where this has come up for me is when living in countries that use Celsius for temperature. Is 30 degrees hot? cold? shorts? pants? shirt? no shirt? — after living there for a while, you get a sense for it (30 is pretty warm by the way), but without having spent one’s life getting familiar with it in the same way as Fahrenheit, it’s a complicated proposition.
To give credit where it is due, the concept for this post was inspired by a post from Mark Suster on entrepreneur/VC relationships (which is also worth a read).
It can be helpful to remember this when presenting yourself to others or evaluating your own performance. Without comparisons to others or your past performance, a single piece of information leaves a lot to be desired. As Mark points out, when evaluating a company for investment, meeting an entrepreneur a single time tells you very little about the company. Are they high revenue, but trending down or flat? or are they low revenue, but doubling every month for the past 6 months? With a single point, you can make up whatever trajectory you want from your data.
This same concept can be applied to job hunting, dating, and any other interpersonal situation where you are looking at a long-term outcome involving people. Mark covers this thinking pretty well in his post, so I won’t re-iterate here.
This same type of thinking can also be applied usefully to self-evaluation to provide better perspective, and for driven, hard charging people, it can help provide some checks to negative self-evaluation or frustrations with progress. For example: say I’m an athlete looking to perform my first body-weight pull up, and I’ve been trying to reach this goal for 6 months. I’m still not there. Looking at my current state (can’t do a pullup unassisted) and comparing it to where I want to be (can do a pullup unassisted), I could very well look at that as a failure. That’s a point on a graph. Now, let’s back up six months to where I didn’t have the strength to deadhang on the bar for more than 5 seconds. Now I can not only hang on the bar for more than 40 seconds, I can can perform assisted pullups using a stretch band. Suddenly my hopeless situation becomes a trend line which is strongly going in the right direction. That’s a much different story.
Again, the same concept can apply to skill building, working out, relationships, etc.
I’ve noticed a few situations where this model can break down if not observed.
Comparing one’s self to a group can be a great way to get a sense of where you fall in within the group’s skill set, but can be terrible when measuring improvement in your own skills. For example, I’ve always worked in startups with smart, ambitious young people and thus find myself comparing my skills and abilities to the highly skilled and intelligent people I work with. As a result, I often feel that I’m not progressing. What is in fact occuring is that our entire cohort is progressing and improving together. So when I look to my local cohort, I find that it often looks the same month over month. What I’m failing to realize in this case is that the cohort itself is moving in relation to the outside world.
Looking to Extremes
With limited, discrete data points, evaluation can be flawed by sampling error. An example of this in life would be: evaluating sport proficiency after having lost of game or relationship success after having broken up recently. These are both likely going to be relative minimums, and not representative of the overall trends. Make sure your sampling isn’t being biased by current state of mind and that your time horizon isn’t distorting your trend line.
I’m sure I haven’t covered all the possible ways this could go wrong, I’d love to hear if any of you have other thoughts on avoiding false interpretations and ways to better use lines and not dots in keeping yourself happy, healthy, and wise.